The US economy has lots of jobs, but many people are looking for something that might be a career–and that’s harder to find. Here’s Claudia Goldin on the difference:

Career is achieved over time, as the etymology of the word — meaning to run a race — would imply. A career generally involves advancement and persistence and is a long-lasting, sought-after employment, the type of work — writer, teacher, doctor, accountant, religious leader — which often shapes one’s identity. A career needn’t begin right after the highest educational degree; it can emerge later in life. A career is different from a job. Jobs generally do not become part of one’s identity or life’s purpose. They are often solely taken for generating income and generally do not have a clear set of milestones..

Goldin’s comment comes in the midst of her lecture “Journey Across a Century of Women” (NBER Reporter, October 2020). I recommend the talk. As she describes it: “My talk will take us on a Journey across a Century of Women — a 120-year odyssey of generations of college-graduate women from a time when they were only able to have either a family or a career (sometimes a job), to now, when they anticipate having both a family and a career. More women than ever before are within striking distance of these goals.”

But on this Labor Day, the broader force of Goldin’s distinction between career and job resonated with me. Some people just want a steady reliable job that pays the bills, offers benefits like vacation and health insurance, and leaves them free to pursue other interests in non-work hours. But for a lot of us, that work-like activity consumes more than 40 hours each week of brain-space. Maybe the best description I know of the human heart of this interaction of self and work is from the poet Marge Piercy, in her 1973 poem “To be of use.” I’ve quoted it once or twice before on Labor Day, but on this year after so many work lives have been disrupted by the pandemic and the related recession, it seems worth quoting again.

“To be of use”

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Marge Piercy (1973)

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